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John Seavey’s Storytelling Engines: Savage Sword of Conan

Here’s the latest Storytelling Engine from John Seavey. Click here to read John’s description of what a Storytelling Engine IS, anyways. Check out more of them at his blog, Fraggmented.

Storytelling Engines: Savage Sword of Conan

(or “Why, Yes, I Am About To Compare ‘Conan’ To ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000′”)

‘Savage Sword of Conan, Volume One’ represents Dark Horse’s entry into the “oversized digest reprints game” (something I heartily encourage, if for no other reason than it means I might someday get a big black-and-white ‘Groo the Wanderer’ collection); it mostly features Roy Thomas’ classic Conan adventures of the 1970s. (A few other writers are represented, and many of the stories are adaptations of Robert E. Howard’s original Conan stories, but the predominant authorial voice is that of Thomas.) Anyone who follows the career of Roy Thomas shouldn’t be surprised to find his name on these issues; Thomas’ main love and primary source of inspiration was the classic pulp stories of the 1930s, and I imagine that the chance to work on an iconic character from that era like Conan was a pure joy for him.

As you read the book, it’s sometimes startling to realize that Thomas isn’t just making up random barbarian stories; specific stories follow each other, or precede each other, or come from specific eras of Conan’s life. Each story stands alone so well that you almost stop thinking of them as needing to link together; when a supporting character from a previous story shows up again, or when a small caption mentions that this story takes place during Conan’s reign as King of Aquilonia, it’s almost jarring to realize that someone’s thinking about this stuff. (Although it shouldn’t be–respect for continuity and chronology is another hallmark of Roy Thomas.)

A casual glance at Wikipedia shows that thinking about Conan’s timeline is a major occupation for a lot of people, though. The life of Conan, as he turns from young wanderer to thief, to nomad, to mercenary, and finally to king, is something that a lot of people feel should be kept consistent. But it’s interesting to note that Howard, Conan’s creator, never put that kind of effort into delineating Conan’s life himself. He wrote an 8000 word essay on Conan’s setting, for his own personal use, and he did endorse one of the timelines, but he never seemed to feel the need to set down a chronology of Conan’s adventures.

It might be, of course, that he knew the timeline of Conan’s life intimately enough that he never felt that he had to set down an order of “this story happened before this story”; however, I think it’s telling that he was more concerned with creating a realistic setting for sword-and-sorcery adventures than with making an iron-clad biography for his central character. Because any “Conan Chronology” is, in essence, part of the storytelling engine for Conan, not the story. They’re specifying eras of Conan’s life that you can set stories in. “If you want to write a story about Conan as a pirate of the high seas, it goes here.” “If you want to write a story about Conan as a mercenary soldier, it goes here.” The supporting cast of ‘Conan’ is fluid enough, and the stories accessible enough, that new readers don’t really need a whole lot of exposition as to where the story “fits” in Conan’s timeline.

In that sense, it’s a lot like another long-running series, ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000′. (I warned you I was going to do this.) There is a chronology for that series, essentially based in production order; following that chronology will explain why Dr. Erhardt is replaced by TV’s Frank, or what happened to Joel, or why the robots get new voices…but the audience understands that these things are just surface details, not nearly as important as the central concept. Conan’s timeline only “matters” if you want it to; because the character is so timeless and classic, the audience quickly adjusts to whatever details might be relevant to this story (Conan’s a thief now? And his traveling companions are this guy, this girl, and this other guy? OK, got it, now on with the show.) Which isn’t to say that people should stop composing “Conan Chronologies”; it’s an interesting pastime. It’s just to say that Conan’s life isn’t a story, it’s an engine for telling Conan stories. There’s a key difference.

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You forgot two of Conan’s most important jobs: head writer for The Simpsons and late-night talk show host.

And his epic battle with Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert…the bards still sing of those days.

Eh, those stories weren’t as interesting after his trusty pal Richter left him and tried to control the universe.

I’m going to see the original cast of MST3k in about an hour. Now I’ll be thinking of Conan the whole time.

Weird, I had the MST3K theme song stuck in my head yesterday. Kept messing up the lyrics.

Savage Sword of Conan was oddly popular in my hometown as a kid; probably the one comic it was socially acceptable to read. (Or at least, to read mine…) Doubtless because it’s simple violent fun, and the issues at the time had more nudity than usual…

Roquefort Raider

February 13, 2008 at 1:06 pm

Mmmmh… I beg to differ, John, but Conan’s life *is* a story. It’s not one that demands to be repeated in its entirety whenever a small part of it is told, but one of the big appeals of Thomas’ handling of Conan is precisely the illusion that this was quasi-historical material.

If not for that aspect of tight continuity set over three decades, if not for that established life-story, Conan would simply have been Generic the barbarian (something most other writers who tackled the character tried to turn him into).

I hope you enjoyed that SSoC volume; that was Thomas at his continuity-manager and storytelling best!

Fixed that for ya – John Seavey writes these babies, not me. :)

“Anyone who follows the career of Roy Thomas shouldn’t be surprised to find his name on these issues; Thomas’ main love and primary source of inspiration was the classic pulp stories of the 1930s”

I thought it’s been pretty thoroughly documented that Roy Thomas’ main (literary) love is the Justice Society of America from the 1940s, not the classic pulps of the 30s. He’s even mentioned that he picked up the Conan paperbacks for the Frazetta covers originally, not because he was a fan of the stories. That evidently came later.

That being said, his work on Conan was amazing stuff, a high water point for comics in the 1970s, and still very, very good when he returned to Conan in the 1990s. (One could only imagine what might have been if Jim Shooter hadn’t chased him away in the 1980s, not that I’d give up his All-star Squadron and Infinity Inc runs for more Conan.)

That’s interesting. I’d never heard that. To me, his work just screams “pulp-inspired”; ‘Killraven’ and ‘Iron Fist’ stand out as two series that have very pulp-heavy roots. But obviously, quotes from the man himself carry more weight than my interpretations of his work. :)

And I should reiterate that I’m not against the idea of working out a timeline for Conan’s life, I just point out that for any given Conan story, the question of where it fits into the Conan timeline shouldn’t be nearly as important as the question of just how many men Conan is going to leave dead on the desert sands, while he rides away with the hot chick. :) I don’t mind seeing people work out the details of Conan’s history, but that kind of thing should always be background, never foreground.

I’ve read Volume 1 of SSoC and am working on Volume 2 and am immensely enjoying both. It strikes me that the Conan in the comics may have been influenced somewhat by John Norman’s Gor novels which were also appearing in the 70s, though they started in the late 60s.

Of course, Conan isn’t obsessed with tying up and chaining up slavegirls like Goreans are, but I was surprised at his attitude toward slavegirls in the SSoC stories. You could easily see him tossing a couple of coins to a tavern keeper for the use of one of his slave wenches for the night, and thinking no more of her feelings in the matter than any Gorean.

What’s more, at the beginning of Volume 2 there’s a lengthy plot involving a slavegirl in which Conan’s interest in her is strictly mercenary and involves a planned swindle in which she is a hapless pawn. When Conan’s partner in the deal falls for the slavegirl and wants to keep her for his own, Conan gets pissed and fights with him to continue using her as their pawn.

That’s … kinda surprising. I knew Conan was a barbarian, but not a pimp. Product of his times, I guess.

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